Renewables not shielded from pandemic job losses

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“Now that we know how to navigate safety – wearing masks, quarantining and testing – we know how to be safe.”

Jason Sharpe, Namaste Solar

The COVID (19) pandemic hit Namaste Solar hard, as it did to so many companies nationwide. 

The Boulder-based company had 200 employees on April 1, 2020, but laid off 15% of them and furloughed another 15%, falling to around 140, said Jason Sharpe, CEO.

Jason Sharpe, CEO of Namaste Solar

Namaste Solar also initiated several programs to keep employees healthy and is back up to a staff of 180. “We’re hiring now and we plan to hire through the summer,” Sharpe said. “Now that we know how to navigate safety – wearing masks, quarantining and testing – we know how to be safe.

“The Colorado Department of Health and Environment has provided clear guidelines, and we’ve been following them since April,” said Sharpe, one of about 90 employees who own company shares.

Namaste Solar found several ways to help keep employees safe once the pandemic hit: almost unlimited sick days; time granted for them to go get tested; paying employees who went into quarantine; hiring a full-time safety person to work on communication, policies, procedures and tasting; and more.

“This helped prevent more of a spread, and they felt good about going to work every day,” Sharpe said.

The pandemic has cost Colorado about 7,500 jobs in the solar industry – depending on who you ask.

Between now and early March, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics releases 2020’s third-quarter data, the impact of COVID-19 on Colorado’s renewable energy industry will remain incomplete and inconclusive. This does not stop trade organizations, and state and municipal government agencies, from extracting conclusions from the data available.

“Colorado lost 7,531 jobs, a 11.2% drop from March through May of 2020.”

Grace Rink, chief climate officer for the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency for the City of Denver

Grace Rink, chief climate officer for the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency for the City of Denver, notes that national data provided by E2, an affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “More than 620,000 clean energy workers have lost their jobs in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent economic meltdown.”

That’s a national figure and includes not just the solar sector, but also other renewable stalwarts such as wind, geothermal, bioenergy, nonwoody biomass, woody biomass, corn and other ethanol, low-impact hydro power, clean vehicle technologies, clean energy storage, smart grid, micro grid, grid modernization and advanced biofuels, according to E2.

Honing in on the state’s industry, Rink said, “Colorado lost 7,531 jobs, a 11.2% drop from March through May of 2020” as workers were furloughed, and people were shut out of offices and businesses.

Mike Kruger, president and CEO at the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, agrees with Rink’s bleak assessment of the first half of 2020, acknowledging that the industry fell short of its 2019 projection of 7,000 jobs. Kruger also said that solar industry data refers to “the number of people who could touch a solar panel,” meaning installers, repair personnel, manufacturers and other technicians.

“There were 2,000 jobs lost between March and May,” Kruger said, adding that, “The new Federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics report for 2020 may reflect an uptick in solar jobs from June.”

By June, some energy employees were brought back to work.

Kruger anticipates a third- and fourth-quarter “uptick in businesses bringing workers back.”

But he’s also being cautious when he notes that, “The actual loss of 2000 will be 1,000 jobs. June 1 we had around 5,000. This is solar and storage; it doesn’t include energy efficiency, (which) took a bloodbath.”

As more Coloradans get vaccinated, businesses reopen and a city task force pushes for energy-efficient and healthier commercial and multifamily building overhauls, third-quarter data Rink and Kruger eagerly anticipate may show improvement.

In January, E2 reported that the U.S. clean energy sector added 16,900 jobs in December. That left 429,250 clean energy workers out of work since February 2020, according to an analysis of federal unemployment filings.

Only 30 percent of the clean energy sector’s jobs have been recovered. “It would take clean energy – once the nation’s fastest-growing job sector – well into 2023 to reach prepandemic employment levels,” E2 said.

Ric Wise, an economist with Quarterly Census of Employment and

Wages, is part of the team that publishes QCEW data.

Renewable energy job growth data relies on a classification system even more nascent than the technologies they classify.

“The oil and gas has been around for 100 years,” Wise said. “Solar has only been in our system since 2012. We’ve been classifying oil and gas for 45-50 years and we’ve only been classifying solar for the last 10.”

Tracking renewable energy job numbers outside of solar is hard. That’s because the BLS has been compiling statistics in oil and gas almost from its founding about 90 years ago.

The BLS’ classification system was overhauled when the agency digitized in the late 1990s. Still, it’s on top of the oil and gas industry’s numbers, and less so for renewable energy. The newer the industry, the more challenging it is to track jobs.

Whether it’s called clean energy, green, alternative or renewable, the job activity remains elusive.

But for now, there is no “clean,” “renewable” or “alternative” energy category by design. Data must be foraged for by using keywords such as “solar cells.”

BLS isn’t the only government entity hindered by its data not fitting into traditional units and categories. “For many utilities, renewable energy acquisition is based on planning processes that have longer cycles,” said Heatheryn Higgins, Colorado Energy Office, public information officer and communications director. The transition to renewables is moving forward at an accelerated pace … .”   

Drawing upon E2’s most recent report that extends through December 2020, Program Assistant Michelle Embury reports a cumulative renewable energy job loss of only 4,197 for the State of Colorado.

The fourth-quarter BLS report will be released on June 5.

Bruce Goldberg contributed to this report.

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